Dear Telling Dad,
My 4 year old wants to know why “flashlight” begins with an “F”. I’m at a loss….please help me out!
Thanks (in anticipation of a mind-blowing answer),
A: Swathi, when dealing with questions from young children it’s critical that you at least appear to know everything. Giving the impression that you don’t know something will only be perceived as a sign of weakness, and children are masters at sensing and exploiting vulnerabilities.
Unfortunately, because you were at a loss for an answer, it may already be too late for you. Your weakness has been exposed, and soon, your sanity will be plundered. Had your son been younger, you may have been able to get away with it, but that window closed when he turned zygote.
Now that he’s seen your once-impenetrable wall crack, he’s going to keep probing for other vulnerabilities with an eternal barrage of “why is this” and “why is that” and “why, why, why.” No matter your answer, the “why’s” will keep coming. Over and over and over again until your brain, fatigued from the endless interrogation, is driven to respond with, “I don’t know.”
And with this, another crack will form.
As a parent, there are only three defensive stances you can take when faced with a question you can’t answer.
The first, which doesn’t really apply to the question you were asked, is “magic.” Kids love its mystique and their immaturity makes magic a perfectly plausible response to baffling inquiries.
I used the “magic” escape all the time when my kids were younger because they made it blatantly obvious that I knew next to nothing on a regular basis. Without magic, I would have been picked clean by scavenging kids a long time ago.
It works a little something like this:
“Daddy? Why is the sky blue?”
“Daddy? How do birds stay in the air if they don’t flap their wings?”
“Daddy? Why is water wet?”
See how easy that is? With only one word you’ve completely satisfied his or her curiosity and prevented the threat of another “why” inquisition thanks in part to their unrefined belief systems.
The second strategy is to deliver what I refer to as a parental filibuster. Basically, you provide such a long-winded convoluted response that your child either A) forgets what he or she even asked in the first place; or B) loses total interest in the question for fear of another confusing diatribe. Either way, you look brilliant and you protect your reputation in the process.
If faced with your flashlight dilemma, I might have offered up the following verbal purge, which is a cunning blend of fact and fiction:
“Well, son, to understand why Flashlight starts with ‘F’ you first need to understand the etymology behind the word. In this case, ‘flashlight’ is comprised of two words…’flash’ and ‘light.’ The ‘Light’ part is obvious because you know what a light does, right? Ok, so obviously that word needs to start with an “L.” We don’t even need to visit that one.
The word ‘flash,’ however, is different because the ‘fff’ sound, as in ‘fffflash,’ could either be from an ‘F’ or a ‘Ph.’ Can you hear how they both sound the same? That’s called a phoneme, a word that ironically starts with a phoneme itself.
I explain all this because I can only assume that you’re asking why Flashlight starts with an ‘F’ and not a ‘Ph.’ For that answer, we need to look no further than the very origins of our alphabet.
It’s well known that the Greeks were pretty much responsible for our alphabet. But, there was no ‘F’ sound in Greek, just a softer ‘p’ sound. This is why Ancient Greece was so civil…there were no ‘F’ words. Even calling someone a mother pucker just meant they like to show affection to their mom. Who’d get riled up over that, right?
So anyhow, when Ancient Roman grammartarians translated Greek into Latin, they spelled the ‘F’ sound as ‘Ph’ to help distinguish it from the regular Greek ‘p’, because there wasn’t even an original ‘F’ sound at all! So, older F-words were started with ‘Ph’ and newer post-interpretation F-words were started with ‘F’.
Armed with this information we can safely assume that if an F-sounding word starts with ‘Ph’ then it existed in Ancient Roman times. But if an F-sounding word starts with ‘F’ then it came about a long, long time afterwards.
Need proof? Consider this. Because the phone was invented in Ancient Rome around 6 B.C. by Alexanderous the Bellious, it was given the traditional ‘Ph’ spelling, as evidenced by the word, ‘Phone.’ The same thing happened with Photograph, Phonograph, and Pharmacy, which all first appeared in the Stone Age.
But the Flashlight didn’t make its appearance in the English language until it was invented around 1902. As such, with no more Ancient Romans around to interpret its spelling, it was given the modern ‘F’ as its starting letter, thus the word, ‘Flashlight.’ The same spelling situation exists with Fire, Fish, and Feet, which are all modern-day inventions.
So, long story short, Flashlight starts with ‘F’ because it would’ve had to have been invented before Ancient Rome even existed for it to be interpreted and spelled as ‘Phlashlight.’ Considering batteries didn’t hit the scene until a few years after the Roman Empire collapsed, this would have been impossible.
Hey! Are you still awake?”
Feel free to tweak the above to suit both your knowledge and your BS-ing capabilities. You really can’t go wrong when you’re making it up anyway.
And finally, the third defensive option happens to be the last bastion of defense for parents. It’s comprised of a simple phrase that’s as frustrating for children to hear as it is effective. So effective that it’s been used successfully on children for centuries. Even as far back as Biblical times. In fact, the very origins, laws, and foundations of today’s world religions are built upon it.
And that phrase, of course, is “Because I said so.”
It can be used on children of all ages, long after they’ve become wise to your “magic” tricks, and can be used in any number of situations. So common is its use that I’m sure even you have heard it at some point in your life.
Now I realize that I didn’t really give you an actual answer to the “Why F” question and that’s because I don’t have a clue. To you and me, Flashlight starts with F because, well, Flashlight starts with F! We don’t wonder why and we don’t really care. But to a child addicted to the pursuit of logic, this kind of explanation isn’t good enough.
Even if I knew the actual answer, I’m not sure I’d tell you. You’d benefit far more by knowing these three reputation-saving tactics. It’s kind of like that old adage, “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach him to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.”
Twist and mold this cliche into a “Shuck It” life lesson and you get:
“Give Swathi the answer, and she’ll appear smart for six seconds. Teach her to dodge questions, and she’ll appear smart for a lifetime.”
Trust me, these tactics work like magic.
Because I said so.
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